Selma, the Pivotal City for Black Voting Rights, Represents the Successes and Failures of the Civil Rights Movement

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People walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, January 8, 2015. The bridge was the scene of a major civil rights confrontation in March, 1965, in which police beat protesters who were marching to demand voting rights for African Americans. Picture taken January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT ANNIVERSARY POLITICS) - RTR4KS5P
People walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, January 8, 2015. Picture taken January 8, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES – RTR4KS5P

Selma, a historic place in the movement for civil rights and voting rights, is going through some tough times.  The site of many of the struggles of a Black-led movement half a century ago — not the least of which was the Bloody Sunday protest on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 — Selma is a mostly Black city plagued with poverty, unemployment and drugs, as the Guardian reported.

As Chris Arnade wrote, beyond historical markers such as the famed bridge, this city that stands as a symbol of civil rights victories is now a symbol of its failures, with an economically and politically disenfranchised population.

“Yet if you walk beyond those blocks you see the ugliness of poverty that is modern Selma: dilapidated and boarded-up homes tagged with gang symbols, empty lots littered with vodka bottles and fast-food wrappers, and sterile low-income projects,” Arnade said.

“You see men clustered on corners selling drugs, and on the better-kept homes you see sign after sign urging, ‘Stop the violence.’ You don’t see working factories, only empty ones being torn down for scrap,” he added.

Selma is the most dangerous place to live in Alabama due to crime and violence, as AL.com reported.  However, the crimes are also present in terms of environmental racism.  Although Flint, Michigan has received a great deal of attention for its lead-poisoning crisis, Alabama counties such as Selma, Mobile, Dallas and Pike have a lead problem as well.  However, Black children in this Southern state are not being poisoned by lead-tainted water, but rather from lead products in rental homes — such as through paint and cheap vinyl mini-blinds, which young children may chew and ingest.  According to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health and AL.com, in just the 36703 ZIP code where the Edmund Pettus Bridge is located, 35 young children had elevated levels of lead in their blood between 2010 and 2014, of the more than 24,000 children from 595 ZIP codes throughout Alabama with lead in their blood that were reported to state officials.

Meanwhile, Selma is receiving financial and technical assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Community Assistance for Resiliency and Excellence program, in an effort to help the city replace its water infrastructure.  Selma is one of 10 communities to receive a total of $500,000 in funding from the federal agency to assist with asset management programs, financial assistance and public engagement outreach, according to EPNewswire. 

“Communities depend on adequate drinking water and wastewater services to survive and thrive, and EPA is committed to providing financial guidance to help them invest in the necessary water infrastructure,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “The need for resilient and sustainable infrastructure becomes more important as water resources are strained by the impacts of climate change, such as flooding, drought, storms, and sea level rise.”

Yet, as the city of Selma grapples with its current challenges, it does not forget the importance of its legacy and place in history.  Selma is preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the historic 1965 “March on Selma” that was so instrumental in the fight for voting rights.  Each year, thousands flock to the area to visit this birthplace of voting equality.  Reflecting on last year’s 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which Selma helped bring about, Selma Mayor George Evans told AlabamaNews.net, “It was unreal. Last year was truly off the chain, unreal we couldn’t even plan for that. Had we had a choice of indicating whether or not we wanted that many people in Selma we probably would have voted no. There was over 100,000 people who came on Saturday and Sunday in our city for the 50th. And I don’t think I’ll witness anything like that again in my lifetime.”

Events begin on March 3 with a bridge-crossing reenactment.

In the meantime, the war on voting rights continues. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4(b), which required federal intervention if a state failed to meet the requirements of voter registration for people of color.  Further, white, Republican-dominated state governments in the South and elsewhere continue to promulgate Voter ID laws that disenfranchise African-Americans and other populations, leading us to conclude in Selma and elsewhere, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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